Ad campaign suggests judicial candidate would side with Haredi-practicing parents over ex-spouses

The election could affect custody decisions for Rockland County children

Credit: Campaign Chris Exias for Rockland Family Court

Jun 22, 2023 7:40 PM


A candidate for family court judge in Rockland County will assign custody of children in a divorce to the parent who is more observant of Haredi practices, according to a Yiddish-language ad that ran in Haredi publications last week.

Rockland County voters will choose a Democratic candidate in Tuesday’s primary to elect a new family court judge for the first time since 2015. In Rockland County, where there are approximately twice as many voters registered as Democrats versus those registered as Republicans, the winner of the primary is nearly guaranteed to win the general election.

At least two Haredi ad circulars in Rockland County published an unsigned advertisement last week endorsing Chris Exias for family court judge over his opponent, Patricia Brimais-Tenemille. The ad notes that whoever wins the election will rule on child custody cases in Haredi divorces in which one parent has stopped observing Haredi practices. It suggests that, if elected, Exias would decide child custody cases in favor of the parent who is still Haredi-practicing.

“We need not describe how catastrophic it is when judges are the sorts of vile creatures who enjoy sucking the blood of sensible, religious people,” the two-page ad, which ran in Community Connections and the Monsey View, says in Yiddish, according to a translation by Shtetl. “There are terrible custody battles, from which we have been suffering from all sides, and which is also a direct threat to the future of all the children from such households — God protect us.”

The ad goes on to say that, “The candidate endorsed by the rabbinic leaders and our heads of institutions is a longstanding friend to Jews,” adding that Exias “has built a reputation for always being there for us at all times.”

Shtetl reached Exias by phone last week, but he was unavailable to speak. Shtetl subsequently sent detailed messages by email, phone and social media, asking if he or anyone affiliated with him paid for the ad, and whether he supports its message. Exias did not respond. Shtetl repeatedly reached out to Community Connections to ask who paid for the ad, but the magazine did not respond.

Screenshot of the ad for Chris Exias

In the Haredi world, people who stop observing Haredi practices or leave the community are often called OTD, an acronym for “off the derech,” a Hebrew word that means “path.”

Child custody battles are common when one parent in a couple leaves the traditional Haredi lifestyle, especially since many Haredim get married and have children at young ages, according to experts. Footsteps, a nonprofit organization that supports OTD people, says that about one third of its members are parents who joined Footsteps as they were “grappling with redefining their relationships with their spouses and children.”

Some such custody battles have attracted national media attention. In 2013, Rockland County resident Deb Tambor died by suicide after leaving the Haredi community and losing custody of her children. In another case, Brooklyn resident Chavie Weisberger lost custody of her children after she came out as a lesbian – and then reattained it in 2017 after appealing the first court’s decision.

Chaim Steinberger, a lawyer who has represented several OTD parents in child custody cases, said that the still-Haredi-practicing parent usually has the upper hand in these cases in New York, since judges in the state must be elected, and the Haredi community often votes in a bloc.

“There is no other area of law where judges have so much unbridled discretion as they do in family law,” Steinberger said. “A judge can make a certain party lose without ever saying, ‘I’m doing that because that party left the fold.’”

If Exias made a commitment to rule cases a certain way, Steinberger says it would conflict with judicial rules. “The rules of judicial ethics forbid a judicial candidate from making commitments or telling how they would rule on cases that are likely to come before them,” he said. “Having said that, people drop hints.”

Whoever wins the upcoming election will take the place of Sherri Eisenpress, who was elected to a second term as family court judge in 2021, but left the role to join the state supreme court. The other family court judge in Rockland is Rachel Tanguay-McGuane, who was elected in 2015. Family court judges serve 10-year terms in New York State.

Exias is the Village Justice in Spring Valley, a village in Rockland County. Before he took that role, he was a clerk for New York State Supreme Court justice Robert Berliner, who resigned from his role after an investigation showed that he engaged in prohibited political activity. The ads tout Exias’s experience working for Berliner, referring to the latter as “our beloved Supreme Court justice.”

Brimais-Tenemille is a support magistrate in the family courts of Rockland, Putnam, and Dutchess counties. Before that, she worked for the Westchester County Attorney.

The ad also endorses Yisroel Eisenbach and Shmuel Smith for four-year terms as Spring Valley village trustees. Eisenbach was first elected to this role in 2019 and is running for his second term.


Primary day is Tuesday, and early voting ends on Sunday. Rockland County voters can click here to learn more about how to vote in the primaries, or here to find their polling place.